June 2020

A lone man watches over the universe, and the pen he wields contains the power to erase from existence all he deems unworthy. His daughter, Zsezzyn, plays at his feet.

She likes to watch him work — the steadily deepening crease on his brow, the scales on which he measures a balance of right, wrong, and the gray that lives between. One day, he will bequeath his pen to her, and this cave where the universe is mapped out above their heads will become her sacred place as it is his. “This is the way of gods,” he tells her.

For now, Zsezzyn frolics beneath the silver pinpricks of the stars, nervous of the darkness that broods between them. At night she dreams the darkness overwhelms her and she runs to the stars for comfort. She spends her childhood shooting arrows with Orion, pouring cups of shadow from twin Dippers, learning her first letter from the W of Cassiopeia.

The stars are her universe, until they disappear. One at a time, the darkness devours them. Zsezzyn traces her fingers along the space where a star once twinkled, struggling to understand, afraid to ask her father why tears run down his cheeks. “Where did the star go, Papa?”

He gathers her into his arms and takes her outside the cave to show her the night sky. The stars are bigger here, but so is the darkness. Zsezzyn shrinks into his embrace. “The people who lived by the lost star committed terrible deeds,” he tells her. “The burden of protecting the universe from such people falls to us and we must not take this responsibility lightly. My grandfather found the threat of punishment alone kept peace. My father had to wield our family’s power twice in his lifetime and I am already past that. Though we strive to use this power sparingly, it has made us many enemies.” He turns his face away from her and stares into the darkness. “There are those who would take our power for their own and use it against us.” He pats her hand. “But I will keep you safe from them.”

Zsezzyn does not ask for details.

Years pass, until one day Zsezzyn notices Orion’s Belt has disappeared. She turns to her father, to ask what happened, but anger simmers in the dimming starlight surrounding him and she keeps her questions to herself. This is the last day she spends playing in the cave.

When she is old enough, her father tells her everything. “Your great-grandfather made the ink for our pen from a pool of dark matter he discovered at the bottom of a black hole. You need only take up this pen and ink over a star to remove it from the universe.”

Zsezzyn is stricken to see how many stars are gone, how dark the cave has grown. Her father follows her gaze and sighs. “My grandfather built this cave to end the chaos of the universe. When he died, the burden of power fell to my father, then to me, as one day it will fall to you.” His voice grows firm. “Yet more and more there are those who wish to strip us of our godship. This, I do not allow.”

Zsezzyn does not try to hide her horror. “But Papa, there are so few stars left. You told me we must wield our power sparingly.”

His face hardens, he clutches his pen to his chest. “One day you will understand.”

“Will there be any stars left then?” Zsezzyn asks.

“The only star we need to survive is our own sun.”

Zsezzyn looks at the pen in his hand, worn and old, a fountain pen carved from the core of a comet, its nib stained dark, a small window in the barrel warning it is low on ink. But that doesn’t matter when so little stars remain.

“We are gods,” he tells her. “They are twinkles in a cave.”

She turns to go and does not look back as she leaves her father, and then her world, behind. Far from the shelter of the cave, from an asteroid she forges a pen of her own.

One by one, the last stars disappear, until only her sun remains. The darkness of the universe around the asteroid brings back her childhood fears. The void pulsates with something she cannot see, licking at her fright, threatening to swallow more than stars. Zsezzyn stares into the empty black, daring it to consume her, and nothing happens.

When at last her pen is done, she travels to the sun that gave life to her world, the lone star her father has not found fault with. She steps upon the surface of the star. Its fires dare not burn her, for the flames know whose daughter she is and what he has done to a thousand other stars. The star guides her safely to its molten core, where its light should blind, its heat should melt, its heart should devour her. Instead Zsezzyn’s fears are burned away, replaced by a scorching, fiery will. She takes out the cartridge she has made for her pen and hesitates. Lifting her head and gazing into the star fire, she asks, “May I?”

The star consents with a small nudge of flame. Zsezzyn plunges the cartridge into the star’s liquid heart. When she is done, she stands, pocketing the instrument with a surge of hope.

She meets her father in his cave, her pen bright in the darkness. “I made this for us, Papa, to restore what we have lost.” Zsezzyn holds her breath, clinging to the memory of the tears he once shed in this cave.

He considers her pen, his expression shifting from furious to uncertain. He draws out his own pen and holds it in his palms, trembling as he looks from the tool to the darkness of the cave. Where once Zsezzyn sensed his anger simmer in the starlight she now feels his regret unspool into the darkness. “My work is done,” he tells her. “Our family’s legacy falls to you now.”

“Papa?” Zsezzyn reaches for him, but she is too late. He grips his pen in his fists and snaps in half. What remains of the ink darkens his fingers briefly before he disappears like all his stars.

The broken pieces of his pen clatter to the floor. Zsezzyn stares at them a long time. Her great-grandfather once believed this pen held the power to protect the universe, and it did, for a time. Its corruption did not begin until much later and with it came a darkness which consumed her father whole.

When Zsezzyn’s grief subsides, she studies the cave walls, sifting through the constellations of her memory. Orion’s belt twinkled there, one, two, three. With a trembling hand, she presses the pen’s nib against the wall and draws a star. Silver light pierces the darkness. Another, and another. All of Orion, Cassiopeia, and over there a Dipper, the big one.

Zsezzyn falls into a frenzy of creation, filling the universe with the stars it lost. A myriad forgotten lives resume. A billion worlds fall back into the orbit of their reborn suns. She adds new stars for the sheer, majestic wonder of it. Hours pass before she steps back to admire the universe, the cave bright with silver light.

Her father might not have been proud, but Zsezzyn is no god, she is only someone who wields a powerful tool. She places the pen on the floor of the cave and steps outside. The universe stretches overhead, bright again with stars and life, and bold with the light of the incoming comet she drew to seal up the cave forever.

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